The Woman Who Lost China- the first year!


Having a book published is at once a joyous and an agonising process. In some ways it is Rhiannon with the WLC booksakin to giving birth!  Books are a bit like babies. Once it has arrived it is as if you have always known it, and is impossible to imagine life without it or indeed before it.  Yet, only this time last year my first literary baby, my debut novel The Woman Who Lost China, was still a bump of manuscript in a tatty envelope at the front of my filing cabinet.  A chance meeting at the Nottingham Writers’ Studio led me to the publishers Open Books, who had the courage to take me on, and I have never looked back.  Contractual negotiations, editorial meetings, marketing meetings, proofs, cover designs, lead sheets, press releases, and a dose of last minute drama, and finally, at last, The Woman Who Lost China was live!

Just as sage parents warn that the birth is just the prelude to the real work, so it is with new novels. I have had a roller coaster six months doing interviews and talks; a guest lecture at The School for Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham, the honour of being  American talk show radio host Cyrus Webb’s 600th guest, returning to St. Anne’s College Oxford, my alma mater to join a book showcase, among many other exciting things.  The surprise of being listed by Rana Mitter in his Daily Telegraph ten book literary tour of China was hard to beat.  I could not believe I was seeing my book and name alongside many great and well known authors, some of whom I had studied as an undergraduate.

Without a doubt the best things about being an “emerging writer” have been getting critical feedback and meeting a whole range of wonderful people both in the UK and all over the world.  I am always humbled when people, with such busy lives, take time to read my work and what is more write to me about it, review it, or come to tell me about it; “your work made me cry”, “your work inspired me and helped me with my own project.”  I have been particularly touched by feedback from Chinese who on occasions have told me that The Woman Who Lost China is the story of their own grandparents, which they had never written.  I will also never forget when the grounds men at my son’s school told me they wanted to buy signed copies to “lay down” for the day I became a J.K. Rowling!

As the year draws to a close, there is a sadness, however, and that lies in the fact that The Woman Who Lost China, although available worldwide through my publisher’s site, and all the usual online retailers including Amazon,  is not available in any format on Amazon China.   Only last week a lawyer friend emailed from Shanghai to tell me that he had to wait until he went on a business trip to Kuala Lumpur to buy my book.   Taking a break today from work on my second novel to sip coffee and warm myself against the Aga, I cannot help but wonder who is lost, the Woman or China?

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang is a writer and author of The Woman Who Lost China, a historical novel about China.


My First Visit to China


China was not fashionable in 1986. My Oxford contemporaries thought I was crazy when I announced I was spending the summer in a Chinese High School in Tianjin, on a British Council, American Field Service Study Programme. The main pre-occupations in the Junior Common Room, focused on obtaining mini pupillages at barrister’s chambers, placements at Goldman Sachs or the Conservative Central Office. For the leftists, it was about opportunities in the aftermath of the miner’s strike or joining the anti-apartheid campaigning.

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang aged 19 leaving British shores for China for the first time.

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang aged 19 leaving British shores for China for the first time.

I did not know what to expect when I got to China. There was just a sense of excitement and exploration. In the back of my mind there were images of mass Maoist rallies and the great glories of Chinese art and culture.  I much enjoyed and admired the latter in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. But it was to be neither, and was to be a huge shock.

For someone who had never been outside Europe and the United States, the journey itself was a slow cultural decompression deep dive.  It was impossible to fly over Soviet airspace at that time and money was tight, so I flew Pakistan International Airlines with ten compatriots via Dubai, Karachi and Islamabad, over the Himalayas to Peking- as it was still called in the English speaking world in those days.

After a stop over in Dubai the plane filled with Chinese oil rig worker bearing all kinds of consumer goods that were unobtainable in China. Boxes of radio cassette players, colour televisions, hair dryers and curling tongs filled the isles and overhead lockers.   Curly hair had been banned for women during the Cultural Revolution in China.  But I remember seeing the boxes of curling tongs for wives and girl friends as a symbol of the hope in the air that summer – a hope that was dashed in Tiananmen Square only three years later.

Karachi and Islamabad were a blue and white riot of noise and heat; mosques, gaudy buses, road side cripples and a man from Bradford with a handlebar moustache and a Yorkshire accent like the cricketer Geoffrey Boycott, who did his darndest to sell us carpets. When we boarded the plane in Islamabad the maintenance men were still fixing the emergency exit and the cracks in the inside windows with brown parcel tape.  We flew low over the Himalayas, the Chinese men smoking their way through the terrifying turbulence that sent tea cups flying and people bouncing around the cabin, hair dryers and televisions tumbling out of the overhead lockers. Luckily not many TV sets. But the views were worth it.

We arrived in Peking in the afternoon to a mountain of form filling. China was a closed economy and all foreign currency and electrical goods had to be declare on entry and accounted for on departure. My prized Ricoh camera had a whole form plus carbon paper dedicated to it. I shall never forget the faces of our hosts, the teachers from the school, who had come with the bus to meet us, tight with excitement, and something that I came to recognise as fear. We were to be the first foreigners to live outside the campus of the University of Nankai since the revolution in 1949, and we were their responsibility.

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang with her teachers from Tianjin Number One High School: Summer 1986.

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang with her teachers from Tianjin Number One High School: Summer 1986.

Driving out of Peking to Tianjin, now it was my turn to be afraid. Thousands and thousands of grey, blue and black Chinese gliding past my window on bicycles and not a car in sight.  It took several hours to get to Tianjin along a narrow road that in places still had chickens and pigs roaming free. And then it was dark, truly dark, for there were no on-coming headlights, no bike lights and few street lights, just walls, eyes, shadows and shouts in the dark.

In the morning I awoke to find a young woman sitting on the edge of my bed.  She was May (not her real name), the cousin of a teacher at Oxford who had written to her to tell her I was coming.  She wore a white blouse, green skirt, white sun hat and white gloves.  I gave her the gifts I had brought, tea and cloth for making dresses, but when she took off her sun glasses to thank me, I could see that she had been crying.

“When are you free to meet?  I cannot come to the school again.  They make me sign in here with my work unit and they ask all sorts of questions.”

Here was my first lesson about living in China, and I learnt fast. I soon began to understand the patterns of fang and shou, releasing and pulling back, that characterize so much of China’s development at all levels over the last quarter of a century.  On the one hand the school was able to provide beef, rather than pork for a Muslim member of our party, but on the other hand we were not allowed to use the school library.  The school provided four Flying Pigeon bicycles for us foreigners to use (no mean feat for this was equivalent to providing people with cars) but as soon as we left the school gates, we were tailed by Public Security officers. On this occasion, my minders were already loitering at the door. May shoved some stamps and her address into my hand and told me to write to arrange out next meeting. We fixed on the following Saturday.

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang exploring Tianjin, North China: summer 1986

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang exploring Tianjin, North China: summer 1986

In pre air-conditioning summer heat, the routine at the school seemed relentless. Early morning classes in Mandarin, Chinese economics and Chinese history which were long sterile lectures from the Marxist perspective to the whirring of a single fan, Chinese art and before lunch taichi with Teacher Wu,  a Chinese Muslim whose father had been a great Master. The cooler part of the later afternoons were spent on excursions, to a Chinese prison, a park, a carpet factory, Nankai University, the new Tianjin port, and one famous afternoon spent driving around the new showpiece Tianjin ring road.

Movie making! Tianjin.

Movie making in Tianjin in 1986. With a Chinese actor in the Chinese TV version of The Last Emperor.

I looked forward to meetings with May.  But the first time I left the compound alone I was terrified.  I sneaked out the back way by the coal shed to avoid the gate house and the Public Security Bureau tail. Walking the streets I was the odd one out, people stared and occasionally a child who did not know better, would shout, “Lao Wai!”(Old Foreigner).  I had the impression I was living in a post apocalyptic black and white film that was running at half speed.  Thin people walked and cycled slowly and apart from the Russian trams, pretty much everything appeared to have been left where it had fallen in 1949.

Together May and I explored Tianjin, going between the different foreign concession

Tianjin street scene 1986

A street in the old French concession in Tianjin in July 1986.

areas.  I was fascinated.  As an old treaty port the city had been divided up by the foreign powers, hence there was a British Concession with mock Tudor houses and a French concession with a cathedral modelled on the Sacré-Cœur and a long boulevard with plane trees and houses with wrought iron Parisian style windows and balconies.  For a treat we went to the Kiesslings, the old German cafe.  Sitting under the grimy chandeliers eating strawberries and ice cream, we looked up the current exchange rate in the People’s Daily and exchanged British pounds and a few Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC) for renminbi. Foreigners were not supposed to hold local renminbi but only shop in Friendship Stores with FEC. I wanted renminbi for local purchases and May wanted foreign exchange, so the deal was done.

As the summer wore on, not used to living with constant restrictions and surveillance, us foreigners at the school began to chafe at the bit. There were lighter moments.  We escaped one night to the Friendship Hotel to drink one beer each in the deserted 1950s Soviet style bar, there was a weekend in Peking and another time we worked as film extras for the Chinese television production of The Last Emperor, dancing in a ball scene which was filmed in the oak panelled ballroom of the former British Club in Tianjin.  Nevertheless both sides could see that if something were not done to diffuse the tension, there would be trouble, and so a free long weekend was arranged.

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang with a class mate at the Great Wall of China at Badeling. Summer 1986

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang with a class mate at the Great Wall of China at Badeling. Summer 1986

Given the circumstances of the time it was amazing that May’s friend Bao Feng and her father, the Head Man in his village invited us both to go stay with them.  Telling no one where I was going except the Head of the British Delegation, I set off with May one afternoon on our Flying Pigeons to cycle to the village.  She had never been there before and was following Bao Feng’s directions.  We passed through several small towns and out into the countryside, riding along the middle of great empty roads which I soon realised had been built for the military.  Night began to fall and we were lost.  Far ahead on the road was a light.  We cycled towards it.  It was an army base.  Cool as a cucumber, May gave me her sun hat and told me to tuck my long red hair up in it, put on my sunglasses and hide in the shadows at the edge of the cornfield.  Then she pushed her bike up to the sentry box and asked for directions.

As last we arrived in the village after dark to a hero’s welcome, barking dogs, hot food and curious faces.  They had been worried and search parties had been dispatched.  That night I settled down to sleep with the girls on the kang, giggling together as we hunted mosquitoes amongst the shadows on the wall and told ghost stories.  I feel asleep underneath a picture of Bao Feng’s father meeting Chairman Mao on the occasion he had visited the village, and felt at home for the first time in China.

The next days were spent, cooking, talking, feeding the chickens and walking along the dykes and in the cornfields with the girls.  We talked of boyfriends and our hopes and dreams and yet for all of us there seemed to be a tension between the two.  With total linguistic immersion, at last I started to make sense of the rolling Rs of the local dialect and I could feel my Chinese coming alive. In the evenings the old people came to sit and talk.

“Yinggou? England? That is four days by train.”  But amongst the jokes and beer I began to hear for the first time the sub text, the real stories of the Japanese occupation, starvation within living memory, beatings, forced collectivisation and self criticisms. A morass of bitterness and suffering often mixed up in the tired memories of the old people.

Later when I finished the course at the school I travelled by train around China, eating sunflower seeds and sharing food with people on long journeys.  People were afraid, but kind.  Above all they wanted to talk, to show me their Grandfather’s stamp album filled with foreign stamps which they had hidden under the floor boards to save from the Red Guards, to tell me of the time spent imprisoned in “cattle stalls” and boiling grass and tree bark to eat.  I was young but I realised that people took risks to take me into their homes because they were pleased to see a foreigner back in China and I was a symbol of hope for better things to come.

In later years watching the energy, determination and at times utter ruthlessness with which China pursued economic development and modernization, I came to see it as born out of the period of intense national suffering, deprivation and indeed grief that had gone before.

The return flight to the UK was hair raising in a different way as we walked into the aftermath of a hijacking in Karachi, long before such things were remarked on, and were held at gun point in the sun on the runway by Pakistani soldiers.  It was a relief to be finally on the plane home, albeit with our bags still left at gunpoint on the tarmac in Karachi.  Deprived of milk and cheese for several months living on a Chinese diet, we begged the airline staff to ransack the galley for second and third helpings of milky rice pudding.  In Dubai we marvelled at western toilets and bought a Mars Bar in the Duty Free to divide between us, savouring the sweet, chocolaty taste.

Back in Oxford in the October of 1986 I was a changed person and I was angry. I finished with the boyfriend I had at the time and that made him angry too as I could not explain why. I wrote in my crude classroom Chinese to May in China, but worried about the people who had shown me hospitality, in case the wind changed.  Barely six months later I was back in the Far East again, this time studying and working in Taiwan and enjoying the glitz of the nineteen eighties boom years in Taipei and Hong Kong. But that, as they say, is another story.

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang is a writer and author of The Woman Who Lost China, a historical novel about China.  Her work is characterised by strong international themes and perspectives and an interest in cultural and historical fault lines.The Woman Who Lost China Cover





Review of the stage play 关系/Consumed


Border Crossings in association with Shanghai Dramatic Arts CentrePoster for Consumed

Tuesday 19th March 2013 at the Djanogly Theatre, The Lakeside, Nottingham.

A poignant little gem of a play, it tells the story of the 1980s generation of educated Chinese.

When Tong Zheng returns to Shanghai to do business after years living in the United States, he is full of himself.  But lost in the neon and high rise, he does not recognise the China he left behind, except in the alleys and back streets.

Involved in the usual murky Chinese consumer shopping mall deal, he hooks up with John Bartholomew, a British businessman who has been living in China for ten years. A shadowy Neil Heywood type figure, Bartholomew speaks no Mandarin, but promises connections with the Mayor.  A bilingual love and business triangle develops and Tong Zheng is confronted with his past.

The deracinated characters float about a white and black minimalist set, anchored only by their mobile phones, and laptops, the Apple logo on their devices shines silver out of the darkness.  The characters rarely talk face to face but interact through technology, constructing a false reality out of a computer

The play runs bilingually throughout in Mandarin and English with translations appearing on chat line screens or deliberately getting lost.  It worked brilliantly for me, illustrating the lack of communication between the characters and the relationship between the West and China, both of which are alluded to as being autistic like John Bartholemew’s son, in the sense that Bartholemew never can really understand the boy.  I wondered, however, how much someone who only spoke one of the languages would make of the story. But that, perhaps, is the point of the play, for even elements of the title itself are lost in translation.

Despite the clever use of language and technology to illustrate the pace of change in China, the real power of this play lies in the message of the 1980s generation, and the songs of Deng Lijun are used to great effect to convey the mood of the time.  Growing up during the anarchy of the Cultural Revolution and clawing back a lost education, many were at high school or university during the heady days of the mid nineteen eighties, part of a great hope and drive to build something better after years of Maoism.  Yet these people were also the children of 1989 and with it the heirs of May the 4th 1919, and those that could, fled to the West in fear in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.  There is a hint of this when Bartholomew first meets Tong Zheng, asking him if he left because of politics, a question Zheng is quick to gloss over.8507669694_0f45566c51_m

As someone who studied Chinese in the West and in China in the 1980s and had friends and contemporaries who were at Tiananmen Square and other protests in China at this time, the gut wrenching moment in the drama came when Tong Zheng is forced to refer to full form characters that were used before the Communist revolution to express his feelings.

Guanxi/关系” he says, “this word we use so much to describe our precious business relations and other relationships; in the full form 關係 the character shows that it means bound together, bonded, tied, but I want 自由 / freedom.”

He goes on to refer to the character 爱 for love.

“In the simplified form it has lost its heart, but in the full form, 愛, it still has its heart.  I want to put the heart back into love.” he says.

This play is above all a cry from the heart of the 1980s generation of educated Chinese who, hoped and worked for so much, but know that they have been sold a dud.

“为什么, 为什么,为什么”? “Why, why, why?” a character asks at the end of the play.  I was haunted by it for days.

Photographer Richard Davenport

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang is a writer and author of a China historical novel, The Woman The Woman Who Lost China CoverWho Lost China. Her work is characterised by strong international themes and perspectives and an interest in cultural and historical fault lines.




Order The Woman Who Lost China


So What Made You Want to Study Chinese?


An article written for the 6oth anniversary of Chinese Studies at the University of Leeds, UK.

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang with a class mate at the Great Wall of China at Badeling. Summer 1986

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang with a class mate at the Great Wall of China at Badeling. Summer 1986

“You were before your time,” a barrister friend commented to me at a College reunion last year. “None of us could see the point in China is those days.”  How times have changed!  The opening of the new Chinese Studies Building at the University of Nottingham this week, and the celebration of sixty years of Chinese Studies at the University of Leeds in October 2013, has made me reflect on how Chinese Studies has changed in the UK over the last quarter of a century.

Going up to Oxford in the autumn of 1985 to read Chinese, I was one of the colossal new intake of ten students!  Numbers up by over 300 percent, the rooms in the Oriental Faculty struggled to cope!  No longer could two students be taught in a tutorial setting over a coffee in a professor’s study. Seminar rooms were required; an early sign, perhaps, of things to come.  But Chinese Studies was still, at the very best, a marginal subject.  Our common room companions were the other “Orientalists.”  There was a very elderly Indian scholar, who reminded me of my grandfather, and would always offer me the other biscuit from his packet of two, a rather wild looking gang of Arabist undergraduates, clearly influenced by Peter O Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia, and a saffron robed Buddhist monk, who wore no coat or socks in the snow, until I gave him some.

Sun Moon Lake Taiwan 87

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang as a student in Taiwan, 1987.

For Chinese Studies in Oxford, Cambridge and Durham had developed out of the missionary tradition of translation of The Bible, Chinese classics, and dictionary writing. My teachers, in general, had come to Chinese from Greats; the study of the ancient Greek and Roman world.  Day one, lesson one, was a translation Mencius’s Analects.   Of course, we learnt modern Chinese as well and it was in the study of modern Chinese that I found my niche.  I realised about half way through the first term, that all the grammar and rules I had learnt whilst studying European languages were irrelevant, that China and the Chinese language were a new world, and a clean slate was required;  a break through moment which I still remember with a feeling of exhilaration.

Thinking back, I admit, I was often frustrated by the old Oxford focus on the study of the classics, philosophy and early Chinese history.   As a young woman, perhaps, I had a sense of the changes that were to come, and was more interested in travelling round China and meeting and talking to Chinese people in their own language.

Yet writing now, over a quarter of a century later, I am grateful for the strong grounding given to me by my professors in all things pre- Communist.  For indeed many of these distinguished if eccentric old men had gone through the war and lived in China before the 1949 revolution.  I can see now that they imparted to me a rich sense of the Chinese civilization as a whole, not defined by any one political party or economic imperative and I am grateful for this.

Of course, the world has moved on, and it is right that it should have.  But asking the same question now, to many of today’s bright young things, “So, what made you want to study Chinese?” too often I get the answer, “I want to go into business,” or “I want to make money.”  I cannot help but feel just a little sad.

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang is a writer and author of the china historical novel The Woman Who The Woman Who Lost China CoverLost China.  She read Chinese at Oxford and has an LLB in Legal Practice. Her work is characterised by strong international themes and perspective and an interest in cultural and historical fault lines.

Written in Dust, Theatre Review



Review of Written in Dust, (Hui Chen) directed by Gareth Rees

A silent tragedy of modern times: Friends. Love. Money. Lies. Death. Hope.

Djanogly Theatre, The Lakeside, Nottingham, Thursday 23rd January 2014

Hats off to indie film maker Gareth Rees for his vignette silent film about migrant workers in contemporary Beijing!

My head full of a dichotomy of images and sounds after the performance, I could not wait to get home and write this review.

It takes some vision and guts for a “lao wai” film maker with no Chinese and zero budget to make a film in China, but this is just what Rees has done and pulled it off.

Written in Dust is a silent film performed with a live music interpretation from classically trained Ling Peng on the erhu and qin, and electronic sounds from DJ Kamal Joory.  It tells the age old tragic tale of young rural migrants seeking a new life in the big city.

In the age of block buster films and standardized video and music streaming, Director Gareth Rees wants to create a unique film performance that people have to come out to experience.  He refuses to direct his musicians, giving them the silent film a few weeks before the performance and letting them come up with their musical interpretation.  The show is very much a live concert with Ling Peng and Kamal Joory quite literally breathing life into the film.

Joory’s raucous electronic themes illustrate Ree’s shots of the deracinated young migrants lost among the futuristic glass facades, buildings, cars and lights of new Beijing. The characters aspire to the shopping mall, bar, coffee shop and high rise apartment dream of modernity, but live in the hutongs amongst the rubble of old buildings demolished in the run up to the Olympics.

By contrast Ling Peng’s er hu and qin portray the inner voice of the characters.  The moment she started singing Deng Li Chu’s famous song “The Moon tells my heart/Yueliang Daibiao wo de Xin” to express the hopes and dreams of the female migrant working in a bar, was heart breaking.

Rees has a keen eye, creating beautiful and poignant visual landscapes for his characters to inhabit.  He juxtaposes the modern and the traditional.  Scenes in glitzy post modern public squares with fountains, neon lights and malls run into snap shot visions that hark back to classical Chinese paintings. At one point the three characters sit on top of a big rock in a park eating ice creams, in another shot the girl sits fishing by the canal, her rod angled as a counterpoint to the huge cranes in the background.

I applaud Rees for his attention to detail; smiling as two workers set off for work on a Flying Pigeon bicycle, the passenger apparently effortlessly balancing himself on the back of the bike while carrying a spade, holding my breath with the characters as they squat or sit on bricks counting wodges of cash.  There is joy too, in the freshness of the faces of the actors and the people around them in parks and streets, for none of them are polished big names with long legs, stunning hair and perfect teeth.

If there is criticism it would be that perhaps the characters have too much personal space, the poverty is sanitized and the air too clean.  There were a couple of moments where I briefly fell out of the story, but I suspect this is a problem with character development in a zero budget 80 minute film.

At a time when so much China related art is bleak and negative, I enjoyed the ending which promised hope in common humanity despite the Chinese style “wild west frontier” style capitalism and unforgiving frenetic pace of change.

The show has Arts Council funding and will be going on tour. Go watch and listen!

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang is a writer and author of a China historical novel The Woman The Woman Who Lost China CoverWho Lost China. Her work is characterised by strong international themes and perspectives and an focus on cultural and historical fault lines.